Monday 5 January 2009

The Thirty-Nine mis-Steps

Well, since the major part of this review is going to be a sustained and furious assault on the integrity of another writer (and a questioning of the intelligence of a production team), I suppose I should make sure that I am beyond reproach. I can't be sure there are precisely thirty-nine instances where the BBC's latest addition to the series of adaptions of this classic departs from the original novel, to be honest I lost count; however, there are certainly an awful lot, and very probably many more than thirty-nine.

So, why so much vitriol? It's true that, even at the best of times, I don't like to see a good novel getting ripped to shreds on the screen by people who are under the mistaken impression that they can do better. However, I seriously object when someone implies they're going to be faithful and then defecates all over it. And that's roughly what Lizzie Mickery does in this quote from the Guardian:

But screenwriter Lizzie Mickery insists she has done the right thing in going back to the original plot of John Buchan's 1915 novel for her inspiration. 'People ask me, "Where are you going to have your memory man scene?",' said Mickery. 'They think they know the story, but they are not talking about the book, they are talking about the films.'

Well, Ms Mickery, anyone who watched your film and thought they knew the story would be similarly wide of the mark.

Lastly, I should note that if you haven't seen it and are going to want to, you should probably watch it first, since this is going to completely spoil the plot for you. That said, even putting aside the inconsistencies and dishonesties, it's a pretty poor piece of drama and rather a waste of ninety minutes. If, on the other hand, you enjoy a good rant, then read on.

We open with Richard Hannay sitting in is club, bored rigid by the London world and yearning for the adventure of the African veldt, or perhaps his years as a mining engineer, all but resolved to quit London for good if something exciting does not happen to him soon. So far, so good, or, rather, so faithful. Good is a slightly problematic word since the woodenness of Rupert Perry-Jones's performance (narration sadly included) is not a million miles from Keaunu Reeves, and many of the less talented planks of timber in existence could out-act both of them without breaking a sweat.

Immediately we run into trouble though: Hannay has taken to staying out all night (which he didn't in the book). He returns to his apartment where Scudder, being chased by persons unknown, forces entry. Actually, the first digression came much sooner when, for reasons that were not initially apparent, the action had been moved forward a month or so to the 28th June 1914.

Scudder and Hannay face off with pistols, another invention. It further turns out that this Scudder is a British spy rather than being of American extraction, as in the book. He tells Hannay a very abridged version of the plot, which I suppose it could be argued is faithful, and immediately hands over the notebook (which isn't faithful). Similarly, Scudder's rather nasty anti-semitism has been exercised. I can see why, but it's in the book and, if you are trying to return to the spirit of that, you should include it (it receives adverse comment from other characters in the novel and this could easily be toned up; such sentiment was more common then and history shouldn't be airbrushed just because we find it uncomfortable). Then the milkman shows up, a German spy, and kills Scudder in front of Hannay. This is wrong on any number of grounds. In the book Scudder fakes his death and hides out with Hannay for several weeks before the latter returns home to find him dead one night, giving him time to plan his escape.

I can't see the logic for the change. Hannay's escape in the book is wonderfully clever: bribing the milkman for his uniform and leaving him to take the rap initially. Here, he merely hangs from the fire escape and chats up a maid. That he makes a go of this escape, despite all the blood on his shirt, is not convincing. Unlike in the book he does not run to Scotland, but instead to his club, despite the blood on his shirt, which must surely violate the dress code of such places. He tries unsuccessfully to phone the contact Scudder named (which he didn't in the book) and then decides to go to Scotland on the grounds that that's where the Germans are, according to Scudder, holed up (rather than because he has Scottish blood, he feels he will be able to hide in such an environment, and can fake a Scottish accent, as in the book).

Despite Scudder managing to convey various bits of superfluous information in their conversation, he does not mention that Julia Czechenyi has something to do with it. This could cause problems, since her name is the cypher by which the notebook can be decrypted. Not to worry: as the train puffs its way north it becomes clear why the date has been moved as we learn that Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated, rather than the fictional Greek Karolides of the novel. Bizarrely Ferdinand's name is the cypher. Scudder, therefore, hardly appears to be a terribly crack spy, since anyone with any sense knows you shouldn't choose a cypher that is linked to what you are encoding, it should be something utterly unrelated. The other thing Scudder doesn't mention is his fear of the man who can "hood his eyes like a hawk". In earlier films, doubtless due to the difficultly of achieving this, it was replaced by someone with a missing finger. Still, with today's make-up and CGI, it should be easy. Easier, than, say, a U-boat (to pick a not entirely random example, of which more later).

The police are hot on our hero's trail, fortunately the ventriloquist on the train aides his escape. The what? Indeed, you may well ask. That said, after his departure from the train, we are not a million miles from the book. Well, except that the literary innkeeper absents himself. Still, the Hannay does flee across the glens in similar manner, and is spotted by an aeroplane. He is then strafed by said plane in the manner of North by Northwest. Why? Well, ask Perry-Jones. According to the Radio Times:

"I said said I wouldn't do it if the aeroplane wasn't in it!" He says, referring to the picture on the cover of his edition of the book. "I've always wanted to be chased by a plane like Cary Grant in North by Northwest."

On one level, who can blame him. Which of us hasn't fantasised about being Cary Grant? And I suppose we should be glad he's at least got a copy of the book. Nonetheless the producers should have saved themselves the bother and hired a finer actor since it's far from clear he's actually read it: the scene is not only a pale shadow of Hitchcock, it is also not in the book (all the plane does there is spot him and fly off). More learned posters responding to the Guardian's review also note that plane is from 1916 and features a synchronised machine gun (i.e. one that could safely be placed behind the propellor, with the firing timed so as not to destroy it) which had yet to be invented in 1914.

Still, he soon falls in with the radical candidate of chapter four... and his sister! Sir Harry keeps his name, but becomes a thousand times more a mindless fool. The parliamentary candidate meeting at which Hannay is forced to speak is replicated, if the sense Hannay's speech is utterly changed and the whole thing is massively truncated. However, the police bursting in at the end is not correct. For reasons that are not remotely convincing Victoria, the sister, becomes caught up with Hannay as he flees. There is nothing even remotely approaching a love interest in the original, it has been a great and successful novel without it, so why on earth do all these people feel they have to stick one in?

I wouldn't mind the fact that so many great scenes have been cut from the novel, such as Hannay's impersonation of the road mender, even from a book as short as this things will need to be cut to get it into ninety minutes, but for the most part they have been crowbarred out so that we can have Victoria rub oil into Hannay's back or spout feminist rants (she has to be a spunky suffraget, of course). Not that I have anything against spunky suffragettes mind (or people rubbing oil into Rupert Perry-Jones's back, I'm sure plenty of people love that), but I don't think it's better than what Buchan wrote.

She also seems to have inherited the brains, and one wonders if this is still a Richard Hannay story in anything but name, since, for example, stealing a car becomes her idea not his. This gives rise to the car chase. The what? To be sure, in the book he drives several cars and at one point dramatically escapes a crash, but there is never really anything approaching a chase. The Radio Times article is full of guff about the wonderfully authentic 1924 cars used. Readers could be given to wonder how these can be authentic in a 1914 setting but producer Lynn Horsford tells us:

"They're rather more modern than they should be, but the models from the 1910s, when the novel is set, just weren't fast enough."

Come again! Doubtless she would have said to Charlton Heston: "Well, it's not that we don't like the chariots, and they certainly look very nice, but you can't argue that motorbikes are faster.". I don't doubt that the battle of Agincourt would be more dramatic with atomic weapons too. Moron. How do people like this get jobs in television (or have I just answered my own question).

They are forced undramatically off the road by the Germans, but the notebook has been lost. The Germans whisk them back to their lair. Again, this is a departure. In the more dramatic book, Hannay staggers desperately into a farm house and throws himself on the mercy of the owner who wards off the police but then turns out to be the man who can hood his eyes like a hawk. Hannay cleverly plays the innocent and pretends to be someone else. Here he owns up straight away. This creates problems. In the book they lock him away (giving him the chance to escape) while they can get someone who can positively identify him, here they do so to allow him to contemplate that they may pull out Victoria's finger nails. Why delay, if it really is that urgent to learn the location of the notebook?

The escape is in the same manner. Well, similar. The farmhouse has become a castle. Still, they locate explosives and blast their way out. Though, given it's a castle, this doesn't burn it to the ground. They are not, however, particularly badly injured. In the book Hannay spends the rest of the day lying on a roof and then two further weeks being nursed back to health.

The quantity of explosives also makes for bolder German schemes: not simply are they going to steal British naval plans, but then use the explosives to dynamite our ports (quite why they need the plans to dynamite our ports isn't clear, since I can't think they moving terribly often). It also turns out that Victoria picked his pocket and hid the notebook. It also seems that Scudder's notebook doesn't contain the full plan (and we have had no mention yet of the eponymous steps, indeed, one begins to wonder if we will see them anywhere but the title).

They return to Victoria's house and her and Sir Harry's uncle sort of takes the place of his godfather in the book (who is the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office and exonerates Hannay - or so it seems). Doubtless for convenience, the secret meeting which the Germans plan to infiltrate is relocated to Stirling Castle (and by this point what little remains of the of the book has vanished). Hannay struggles at the castle to avoid arrest, by this point in the book he had sufficient skill to get himself cleared of the murder charges. It then turns out that Victoria is actually a spy, that the secret service knew he was innocent all along, but wanted him chased so they could watch the Germans. Of course, why they didn't just swoop in and arrest the Germans after they ran around firing guns from yet to be invented aeroplanes is never made entirely clear, doubtless these are spies of similar intelligence to those who cobbled together the dossiers on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Finally, the thirty-nine steps make their appearance: they were written in invisible ink, something Hannay was able to deduce from the fact that Scudder dipped his finger in his tea. Now, in many ways this is the most implausible part of the adaptation. Well, perhaps not, but still. That he remembers such a small detail days later and, what's more, comes to that conclusion rather than, say, assuming that a little bit of something had got into his guest's tea and that he was trying to fish it out. After all, I do that every now and again, and it never signifies that I've been using invisible ink.

The thirty-nine steps turn out to be located at the villains' castle, so quite how they help (presumably because there are lots of staircases there), or why they needed to be written in invisible ink must remain a question only the writer can answer, and oh how I'd love to see her try. In the book, they, and the time of the tide, provide the clues that enable Hannay to deduce the location from which the Germans mean to flee, given this is somewhere entirely unknown to our protagonist it is a vital clue. Here, Hannay could easily have foiled the scheme without it.

But wait, didn't the naval plans need to be stolen first. Quite right, and they were, by the uncle, who it turns out is the traitor who cost Scudder his life. Clearly in these politically correct times we cannot have all the bad guys be German. I can think of no other reason for removing the wonderful scene where a German disguises himself as the First Lord of the Admiralty and Hannay's flash of recognition which allows them all to realise they've been duped, but too late.

So, post haste to the first castle. Down into the dungeon (so just as well they didn't destroy it with the explosives) and looking for thirty-nine steps. Helpfully, the chaps who built the castle wrote the number on the wall next to the staircase. Again, it isn't entirely clear why anyone would do that. Still, they do lead down to the sea, or at least an inlet where the Germans and the uncle are making their escape. Given the gravity of the situation, you would have thought slightly more by way of police and spies would have been mustered to stop them. However, the Germans have moved up in the world and no longer attempt their escape by yacht, so passe, after all. No, for this adaptation they have every 1914 super-villain's transport of choice: a U-boat.

Fortunately for our heroes, this has significant flaw. Apparently, as they shout via a megaphone to the ineptly escaping Germans, it can only stay surfaced for three minutes. Now, while I hold a masters degree in engineering, it is not an aquatic flavour; however, I am reasonably certain that usually the limitation on submarine design is for the length of time they can stay below the water, time above is almost indefinite (subject to food and fuel supplies). Indeed, Wikipedia (not necessarily the surest source, but surely better than the production team) tells us:

Because speed and range were severely limited underwater while running on battery power, U-boats were required to spend most of their time surfaced running on diesel engines, diving only when attacked or for rare daytime torpedo strikes.

An interesting choice of escape craft, then. For anyone wondering, the U-boat did at least exist at the time the story is set, indeed, Wikipedia notes that the Germans had twenty-nine on the eve of war; though whether the U-boat depicted is of the correct period I cannot say, I'd be pleasantly surprised if they'd managed to get this one detail of historical technology correct.

Hannay and company are sufficiently incompetent that they allow at least one German to get aboard before it submerges (in the novel everyone is caught). Then a dying German shoots Victoria. This, as will become apparent, in a way that again defies explanation, is oddly convenient. She falls into the water, and despite his attempts to locate the body, vanishes.

Well, it's deep, after all. Hannay then, in keeping with the book, joins up, since war has broken out, and is at a London station waiting to ship out when he is afforded a glimpse of Victoria (who is about to engage in spy work so secret she must fake her death). Hmmmm. Let's examine this for a moment. Was it just a lucky coincidence that a German happened to shoot her, which she then took full advantage of? Possibly. But, if so, she would have had to deal with a real bullet. Presumably she was wearing a bullet proof vest, though given at the time (credit again to Wikipedia), to be effective required some thirty layers of cotton (silk was also used but only slowed bullets rather than stopping them) this would probably have been quite obvious. It's also worth nothing that they were not cheap (around $800 in 1914, and that was a lot of money then). Even so, lucky he didn't shoot her in the head. And then she falls into the water and what? Bear in mind that even with a bullet proof vest, being shot still knocks the wind out of you. The aqua-lung and other underwater breathing gear had yet to be invented (1943, if you must know), so either she held her breath for an impossibly long time or swam an impressive distance prior to coming up for air out of sight. Or, perhaps it was all planned, and the German didn't really shoot her, but was in fact a British agent. Though given the guy then gets shot several times by Hannay this is also, to say the least, bad planning (though possibly he had a bullet proof vest). Either way, our writer has clearly not thought this one through. I've seen many a spy flick convincingly fake a death: this doesn't come close. Worse, what on earth was the point? She is dead for all of thirty seconds before we get the 'ha, got you' shot (though, Ms Mickery, in case you're reading this, I should note that you didn't).

In summary, unless you find Rupert Perry Jones jawdroppingly handsome, and even then, there is very little reason to watch this train wreck. The plot of the original novel is put through an industrial threshing machine and replace by a markedly inferior creation with no regard for what is possible, plausible or in keeping with history. The principal players involved should not be permitted to work for the BBC for a long time to come.

Perhaps one day someone will come along and produce Buchan's Thirty-Nine Steps for film or television. I suspect, though, that we would be holding our breath even longer than Victoria must have had to.

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